Family tree research part 2

What records should you look at?

Well, anything really.

There are various sources that hold records of events. Family documents and local newspapers are obvious choices; nowadays a lot of local newspapers around the country are online, which means that if you know a person lived in a certain town miles away from you, it’s still possible to search for them.

In this post I’ll be covering probably the two most important types of records you’ll be using – the Census and the Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) registers. I will cover immigration lists and military records at a later date.

Of course you can search BMD records at your local registry office or county archive, who hold microfiche records of the entire national registers.

Alternatively, you can search the same records online, in the privacy of your own home and at your own pace. A good starting place is the FreeBMD archive. As the name says it’s free to search and they have downloadable scans of the original document pages.

Stay focused

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of the search; you’ll want all the information right away.

Pretty much the only thing that this will guarantee is confusion. It will be much easier if you take a logical approach to your research. Focus on the family name that you have the most information for, which in most cases will be your own.

Common surnames, such as Brown or Johnson, can be problematic because of sheer numbers with that name out there. Unless your family comes from a small town or village you will almost certainly have a long, painstaking search on your hands.

In these cases you might be better off researching a more unusual surname in your family, until you’re confident with the tools at your disposal.

Also, perform your search in chronological order, working backwards from yourself.

Take care to check and double-check the records to be absolutely sure that you have the correct ancestor at each step.

Searching for records without having the full details about the relatives in-between can result in confusion between people of the same name.

Birth, marriage and death records

You will at least be familiar with birth certificates because you will have your own, and you may well have a marriage certificate. Some of you will have death certificates of parents. These are the official documents that record major milestones of peoples’ lives. They can also a great source of information for family historians because they are full of information about the person involved and even previous generations.

For example, if you check your own birth certificate you will see that it tells you both parents’ names and places of birth. In the case of your mother it gives you the maiden name. This information can be to track down the parents in the Indexes and order their certificates to find out the same information for their parents … and so on.

Other interesting information can be found such as job titles, current addresses and in the case of death certificates, the cause of death and the birth date. It may be that for whatever reason the actual birth date can remain elusive so finding the death certificate can open up that line of enquiry.

The indexes go back as far as 1837. Before that the government didn’t keep national records.

To find information prior to 1837 the local parish records will need to be investigated, and that can only be done in person.

I will cover buying copies of certificates in the next post.

Census records

The UK has had a Census taken every ten years since 1801 to give the Government up-to-date information on the changes in the population and its habits. The first four were no more than statistical summaries.

In 1841 the census records were changed and ever since have listed every person in every dwelling over the whole country. Over the years more and more information has been requested, down to intimate details of peoples’ lives.

The records are kept private for 100 years, after which they are released to the public.

1911 census records are the latest to be made available, although not totally searchable, are online at You could also try 1911census. In both cases you’ll have to pay to view the records so you won’t know for sure if you’ve found the right record until you shell out your cash.

Most county archives hold microfiche copies of the censuses from 1841 to 1901, so you may be better off making time to visit them. You can view the records and, if you find the people you’re looking for, note down the reference numbers of the relevant pages, return home and buy your copies.

Information in the census

Columns for 1841 to 1901 are given below:

1841 – Address | Habited / Uninhabited | Names | Sex & age | Profession | Born in England / Born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign country

1851 – House # | Street | Name | Relation to head of family | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Blind or deaf & dumb

1861 – Street & # or name of house | Inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Blind or deaf & dumb

1871 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Imbecile or idiot / Lunatic

1881 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Imbecile or idiot / Lunatic

1891 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | # of rooms | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age at last birthday | Profession | Employer / Employed / Neither | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Lunatic, imbecile or idiot

1901 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age at last birthday | Profession | Employer / Worker / Own Account | If working at home | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Lunatic / Imbecile or feeble-minded

In 1841, adults ages were rounded down to the nearest five years.

The age column is useful information because it will help to narrow down that persons’ entry in the birth indexes.

All censuses contain a column to note peoples’ occupations. This is great for giving a feel for how your ancestors lived their lives. Some of you will find several generations of agricultural labourers (I did!), whilst others will find wealthier forebears living “on their own means”, with houses full of footmen and maids.

Be sure to read the full record for each person or you could miss a crucial piece of information.

Census tips

Start with the name, date of birth, and birthplace of one ancestor who’s likely to appear in the 1901 Census. It would be useful if you also know this persons’ parents or children so that you have a further point of reference.

When you find that person’s census page, look at the other members of the household. This will give you more names for your family tree, and more possibilities to follow up in other records.

Anyone that is is over 10 years old in one census ‘should’ appear in the previous one so work backwards to track the changes in their lives. In particular, look for those you’ve found as adults, recorded decades earlier as children – they’ll probably be living with their parents, giving you another generation to explore.

Your ancestors won’t always be where you expect, though – if someone’s missing from home they may be in prison, with the Armed Forces, or living elsewhere with a new family.

It’s often these surprises that provide the best stories in our family history, and point you towards other records for further research.


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